Return to Sender – nothing new here

According to a well known search engine there is a dispute about the provenance of what is probably the best known definition of madness. The one where insanity is described as doing the same thing over and over yet expecting a different result. Well whoever actually said it first might have been thinking quite specifically about a report I have just read.

One internet is a blockbuster published by the Global Commission on Internet Governance and Chatham House. While it will doubtless constitute a valuable source of references for scholars, I have two major criticisms. First there’s the perfunctory, almost casual way children’s and young people’s use of the internet is discussed, missing several important points not by inches but by miles. However, what leaps off the page is the dated air of unreality. One Internet could have been written, and probably was, any time in the mid to late 1990s. As a testament to the old religion it has a certain charm but that’s it.

One Internet is a manifesto for an imagined status quo  ante that actually may never have existed, or if it did it was for the briefest of moments. What One Internet most definitely is not is a manifesto for the future. It is an egregious expression of hope and optimism delivered in the teeth of self-evident, almost overwhelming adversity and rapidly growing signs of failure.

Maybe the authors were simply unlucky in terms of timing. Perhaps 18 months or two years ago there was a window but in the immediate aftermath of Brexit and Trump’s victory in the USA? In sight of growing support for nationalist and isolationist political parties all over Europe and elsewhere, at a time when Russia and China seem more and more determined to do whatever they like, when the glitz, glamour  and promise of globalization is fading as things like fake news, online fraud and the Mirai botnet expose the vulnerabilities of the internet and all who depend on her, it seems, to say the least,  unlucky to bring out a paper which so strongly argues for  the same old same old.

Never before in our lifetimes has the international order seemed more threatened and unstable. The report itself acknowledges this to some degree when it says the future of the internet does indeed hang in the balance.  But that future is not an abstraction, a contained system co-existing in a parallel universe, it is rooted in what is happening in the world where we put our feet.

If ever there was a need for new thinking it is now. You will not find any in One Internet.

Three possible futures

One Internet describes three possible futures. The first is a “Dangerous and Broken Cyberspace”. Not an option favoured by the authors. It arises because inter alia the…..

inadvertent effects of government regulation are so high that individuals and companies curtail their usage (of the internet). Governments impose sovereign-driven restrictions that further fragment the internet and violate basic human rights.

Wow. Those naughty Governments. I suspect the UK would be on this list of culprits.

The next is Uneven and Unequal Gains. Again this is frowned upon but how might it come about? It happened because

The economic value of the Internet is compromised by governments failing to respond appropriately to  the  challenges of  the  digital  era, choosing instead to assert sovereign control through trade barriers, data localization and censorship and by adopting other techniques that fragment the network in ways that  limit the free flow of goods, services, capital and data.   

Governments to blame again. Note that industry is not criticized here. Governments are just getting in the way.

Then there’s outcome number three. This is the big one. The target.

Broad, Unprecedented Progress

In   (this)   scenario, the   Internet   is  energetic, vigorous and  healthy.  A  healthy  Internet  produces unprecedented opportunities for social justice, human rights, access to information and knowledge, growth, development and innovation.

And how are we to  reach these sunny  uplands? Easy.

We call on governments, private corporations, civil society, the technical community and individuals together to create a new social compact  for  the  digital  age.   This  social compact will require a very high level of agreement among governments, private corporations, civil society, the technical community and individuals. Governments can provide leadership, but cannot alone define the content of the social compact. Achieving agreement and  acceptance will require the  engagement of all stakeholders in the Internet ecosystem.

To scold national governments with pious platitudes seems close to insulting. One internet is an argument for a particular business model  the support for which is being ever more searchingly questioned by growing numbers of people on every continent and it is therefore also being questioned by Governments who are put there by those same people.

Instead of  One Internet’s starting point  being a very obvious ideological commitment to preserving their singular vision of the internet the project could have asked itself

 What is it about the way the internet is working at the moment that is causing so many problems for so many Governments, making them feel compelled to act?  How can we address these and what part might internet governance institutions play in that process?

Rather the report seems to argue that the internet’s palpable imperfections and key parts of industry’s persistent shortcomings are the price we all have to pay in perpetuity in order to retain the new technologies’ undoubted benefits. We should just get used to it.

No, No, No, as a famous former British Prime Minister once said.


One Internet acknowledges an earlier report from GCIG and Chatham House, of which I was a joint author (One in Three) but then it completely overlooks all of its principal recommendations. For example One Internet  expressly endorses the NetMundial statement  when it says

NETmundial….. mark(s)  a  major  step  by all stakeholder groups toward agreement on the basics of  Internet  governance, including  agreement  that Internet  governance should be carried out through a  distributed,  decentralized  and  multi-stakeholder ecosystem.

In the NETmundial statement none of the following words appear, not even once: child, children, youth or young, despite the fact that, as One in Three  shows, one in three of all internet users in the world is below the age of 18, and this rises to nearly one in two in parts of the developing world. Whatever else people might imagine the internet is or could become, right now it is a family medium, a children’s medium. The rules of the road need to be rewritten to reflect that. Yet you will look in vain in One Internet  for even a hint that the report’s authors  are aware of this dimension, much less do they embrace it.

One Internet makes the occasional reference to the issue of child abuse images and to wider issues of child welfare but its tone is hurried and curt.

Intermediary liability

On the vexed but hugely important question of intermediary liability One Internet simply says it endorses the Manila Principles. The agencies that seem to have taken the lead in preparing the Principles, and as far I can see most of those who have subsequently endorsed them, are drawn from a very narrow spectrum of internet activists. Multistakeholder it is not.

I know of no person of standing who wants to abolish the principle of immunity for internet intermediaries.  It is simply wrong – it would be unjust – to attempt to make anyone liable for something they could not have known anything about.

Yet there is no doubt that the principle of immunity for intermediaries has provided too many online businesses with an incentive to do nothing. It is a permanent alibi for inaction and evasion in connection with some of the most important threats to children e.g. the continued spread of child abuse images and aspects or types of cyber bullying.

We should take a leaf out of the law and practice of data protection. Here it is universally accepted that states not only have a right to impose requirements on businesses in terms of minimum security and other standards but they also have a right to establish independent agencies to carry out inspections to determine how those standards are being observed by any organization that collects, processes or stores personal data.

We know that networks are being abused by a variety of lawbreakers in ways which harm children,  just look at the continuing scandal of advertising supported piracy web sites and the ongoing large scale distribution of child abuse images.

The case for imposing cyber hygiene obligations in respect of a broad range of internet businesses is clear.

In other words, while the principle of immunity from any substantive offences  or civil wrongs should be maintained, companies ought to be required to take reasonable and proportionate steps to detect, eliminate or mitigate any and all unlawful activity taking place on their network. At the very least companies should be expected to take reasonable and proportionate steps to enforce their own terms and conditions of service, otherwise these Ts&Cs are tantamount to being a deceptive practice. An independent inspectorate could  have a role here to reassure the public that the designated standards are being observed by everyone who sets up shop in cyberspace.

If these sorts of things were happening public confidence in the internet might start to rise and  Governments would feel under less pressure to intervene and regulate. This wouldn’t fix everything that’s wrong with the world today but in this particular niche it would most assuredly be a step in the right direction.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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